Dead Cert (2010)

Freddy Frankham is, just like his name suggests, a direct and honest kind of guy. Sure, he is a criminal, someone who is involved in the illegal fighting and betting scene, someone who is not above facilitating drug deals, and who does not mind bending more than a few rules in order to secure a building permit. And he has an even darker past, a past which he has left behind, a life he gave up for his partner Jen. Still, Freddy is the film’s “hero”, and the kind of criminal that you are meant to admire in gangland B-movies: a “self-made man”, a family man, and the proud owner of a spanking new high-end strip-club called Paradise. Someone who stands by his word, a loyal bloke who looks after his friends, someone who takes no bull-shit and who talks straight and “frank”.
Freddy’s lovely wife (or fiancée, or girlfriend, who knows?) comes with two brothers attached: Dennis Christian is a top-level fighter in the illegal arena. Like Freddy, Dennis is an honest bloke, but we feel that he lacks the kind of discipline, caution and focus that Freddy has. Maybe that’s an age thing – it seems that Dennis is at least ten years younger.
Now, the other brother is a different matter. Eddie Christian is not a fighter. He does not have the physique his brother and his brother-in-law possess. But neither does he have their “honesty”. What he has is cunning and ruthlessness, as well as plenty of ambition. He is a small-time mobster with an air of grandeur, and he does not mind killing people to get what he wants. His desire to play in the big leagues means he gets involved with serious gangland kingpins.

These character descriptions sum up what you can tell about these key players after 20 minutes of running time. Dead Cert is thus nicely set up, with some pretty effective world-building.

Given the set of characters just described, it will come as no surprise to the keen observer of run-of-the-mill film scripts that it is Eddie who will get Freddy in trouble and drag him into a world of hell.
Freddy will find himself confronted with a group of people who insist on buying his new club, even though it is not for sale….

 

As this character constellation may already have told you, Dead Cert is structured like your average London gangland B-movie, of which we had our fair share in recent years. It also has the “looks” of that genre, and a fitting cast and dialogue. And you know what they say: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck……. So this is what Dead Cert basically is: a gangland B-movie. And throughout, it feels like we have a script involving a gangland war, but with vampires having been shoehorned into the script simply because they were cool in 2010.

As you can imagine, there are some other problems that come with such a hybrid script. The film suffers from a slightly confusing plot, and it seems at times to be unsure what it wants to be: vampire horror, or gang-land war film, although tonally it seems to settle for the latter.

 

There are some fine minor and supporting performances amongst the female employees of Paradise, but since their characters are mostly strippers and thus the actors all of a similar built and similar looks and dressed in similar outfits, it is very hard to tell them apart well enough to single out specific performances.

In other cases, the acting in some of the minor roles is on amateur level. Generally, however, this is a very impressive cast that has been assembled here. But it should be noted that some of the most well-known cast members like Danny Dyer, Jason Flemyng, or Andrew Tiernan had the smallest amount of screen-time. Probably a budgetary issue – I assume these are people who probably agreed to appear in these smaller roles not for the money, but because someone called in a favour.

Thoroughly good acting extends from these smaller roles on to key supporting characters like those played by Billy Murray and Steven Berkoff. Particularly enjoyable is the performance by British character actor Perry Benson as the aptly named “Magoo”, even though his character has received a bit of a “one-note” treatment by the script. In a rather minor role as his wife, Lorraine Stanley complements him perfectly.

A key performance is that of Dexter Fletcher as Eddie. It is hard to imagine an actor who could have done this character more justice. The same could be said about our “hero”. I am sure there are other “tough guy” actors who would have done an equally fine job, but Craig Fairbrass is undoubtedly an asset for this film. His portrayal of Freddy makes us feel that these are real people, that there are real lives and futures at stake. Fletcher and Fairbrass give the film some depth – depth it would otherwise have struggled to achieve. But while both characters – like any character in this film, really – could be said to be somewhat stereotypical, Fairbrass manages to sculpt a near-three-dimensional character around that stereotype. And he did this, as he himself said in the DVD’s “making of”, with the help of director Steven Lawson. Lawson is kind of a “self-made man” when it comes to film making, and Fairbrass’s early career as a struggling actor also has all the hallmarks of such a “self-made man”. So it should come as no surprise that both managed to give the character of Freddy, another “self-made man”, some fine-tuning.

The set of core characters is completed by Danny Midwinter as Dennis and by Lisa MacAllister as Jen, Freddy’s “significant other”. Midwinter, who one year earlier suffered the indignity of appearing in the abysmal Against the Dark, gives a fine performance in Dead Cert, but his character suffers from script issues that I cannot talk about because of spoilers.

Fairbrass and MacAllister have great chemistry together, and her performance in this main supporting role does enhance his character’s believability. But while she is very good in emotional scenes that are of a subtle and intimate nature, emotional scenes that are more extroverted are seemingly not her forte as they feel forced and unnatural. There are at least two such scenes in this film; one of them is a small scale version of a rallying pep-talk or a call to armour, and there are many female actors who find it hard to pull such scenes off, including many A-listers.

 

So acting-wise, this is very fine cast for a low-budget film. The budget is rumoured to be around 1 million pounds, and likely only a small portion went into actors’ salaries. As I said, it feels like some people took part in this project as a favour to someone, or because they knew each other, etc. There is a reason why people on the internet have called this film an East Enders reunion. Moreover, at least six of the actors are credited as executive producers, which I would guess is a trade-off for them taking salary cuts.

So I assume the budget mostly went into the sets, and into fight choreography, as well as special effects and make-up. All of these elements are solid, but still budget-sensitive. Which is something I like in film-making: people doing a good job within their financial means, instead of aiming too high or too grand and setting themselves up for failure. And this is said so be a strength of director Steven Lawson: he gets things organised, he knows what he wants, and he gets things done.

 

The camera work is not much to shout about, but there are some nice choices. There is shot where the camera moves high up above a street to give it a special angle and increase the feeling of the street being deserted. And during the illegal fights, the camera goes in close right amongst the crowd, giving you the feel that you are there watching it all with that (small) crowd standing in a circle around the fighters. It is sort of a visual reminder that this is an illegal underground fight, not some televised boxing match.

 

In spite of all the solid work in the “visual” departments, the small budget still results in a lot of things having a bit of a “small scale” look. As I said, I admire that kind of work – but it does affect the over-all film. Fights are mostly limited to one-on-one shots, and there are very few fight scenes involving a larger number of people. Which is why, for me, the final battle falls a bit flat. But there are other, probably more important reasons for that, and those include some odd pacing and editing in that finale. Add to that two arbitrary, inconclusive and seemingly tacked-on scenes at the end that likely only exist in order to set up a potential sequel, and you have a somewhat unsatisfying ending. The film seems to slowly fade out, while weirdly still managing to end too abruptly. So it feels like the film goes out with a whimper and not with a bang.

 

There are other problems with the story. I feel there are few convincing character motivations. Which is odd, because the film expository first 20 minutes presents us the core set of characters in such a way that we easily understand what kind of person each character is. And yet we do not always understand why they are doing what they are doing, or why they are doing it in that particular way. And that problem about the motivation seems to have at times affected the overall good performances.

 

So while the acting is very good, and the director does a solid and competent job, and everything in the “visual” departments works fine, from cinematography to sets to make-up and so on, I believe that what has the biggest negative impact on the film (apart from editing and pacing throughout) is the unsure writing and the lacklustre story. This story is too straight, too average, too old. There is not a single moment in this film when you do not already know where this is going; with the exception of one particular sub-plot which is almost completely abandoned and does not go anywhere, although it is the one thing which could have been used to great dramatic effect. Add to that some minor plot holes and some inconsistency as to who is turned into a vampire, and through what/whom, and how quickly; and some coincidences that are just too damn convenient.

All in all, it seems like the script could have needed more time, more work, more ideas, more outside perspectives. And that is a funny thing to say about a script which apart from the writer has already seen four other people being credited with creative input.

The DVD comes with a two-page booklet explaining and expanding the lore created for this film. It is a sort of back story, parts of which we have heard in the film, but with many gaps filled in the booklet. Content-wise it is neither here nor there. But it always looks bad when you get the impression that the distributor feels he needs to fill in some gaps.

 

The script also contains some unpleasant xenophobic undertones. Such xenophobic undertones admittedly already exist in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and as such are a valid part of the genre. Dead Cert, however, is a film that with its world of illegal fighting, strip clubs, and “honest” straight-talking tough guys is aimed at a certain section of the white male working-class demographic, so the two scenes I have in mind leave you with the feeling that these xenophobic undertones are specifically employed to pander to the unedifying instincts of the target audience.

 

With the deficits in the script writing, and the general budgetary constraints, I am afraid I cannot give this film more than 4 out of 10, despite the good acting and the solid work done on several fronts. It is not that this is a particularly bad film, but it is not a particularly good film either. Still, for B-movie fans this is absolutely worth a watch if you feel that this particular premise appeals to you.

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